Society of St. Vincent De Paul
St Lawrence Conference
"Turning Concern into Action"


History of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul

Frederic Ozanam
1813 - 1853
Society of
St. Vincent de Paul

If you want to begin to understand what the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is all about, we must, of necessity, return to the origins of the Society and consider, in retrospect, both its philosophical and historical background. 

To every one of us God gives special gifts for the renewal and building up of his people. Some of us welcome these gifts and, as our Lord describes it is in the parable, make them multiply a hundred fold. Others do not work as hard at it and fail to take full advantage of their charismatic gifts, and others simply neglect them, or worse still, bury them out of sight, so that they produce nothing. 

We can stimulate our desire to have our charisma bear fruit by the study of those who have accepted God’s grace and allowed it to have full rein in the development of their gifts. Since we Vincentians have a special vocation, that of direct, personal service to the poor, it is fitting that we should look back to the sources of our own Society for inspiration and encouragement. 

I invite you, then, to view with me some of the pictures in our Vincentian portrait gallery.


The first portrait is that of the man whose name our Society is proud to bear: St. Vincent de Paul. Founder of the congregation of the mission and of the Daughters of Charity, he was canonized by Pope Clement XII in 1737, and was declared patron of all charitable groups by Pope Leo XIII in 1885. 

St. Vincent de Paul was born around 1580, in the Gascony region of France , about sixty miles north-east of Lourdes . He was the third of six children born to a poor French farm family. He was educated at the college at Dax and the University of Toulouse and was ordained in the year 1600. Following his ordination, he continued his studies in Toulouse , also doing some teaching there. However, in 1605, while returning from a trip to Marseilles , the boat on which he was traveling was attached by pirates and he was taken as a slave to North Africa . 

Two years later, in 1607, he managed to escape and return to France , and shortly afterwards went to Rome . In 1609, he was sent on a special Papal Mission to the Court of Henry IV King of France , and he became the Chaplain to the French Queen. This chain of events seems to have been providential because it was in Paris that St. Vincent de Paul first came face-to-face with the poverty that was later to be the focus of so much of his work. 

It was while he was pastor of a poor country parish that St. Vincent de Paul formed the group that later became known as the Ladies of Charity. It consisted primarily of rich women who organized the collection and distribution of supplies to the needy. While these ladies were generous with their time and possessions, they often lacked the practical knowledge required to help the poor. This was especially true of the groups in Paris . As a result of this, St. Vincent recruited country girls to come and help out. These eventually evolved into the order of nuns known as the Daughters of Charity. It would appear that St. Vincent de Paul initially had no intention of founding a religious order. In fact, the Daughters of Charity seem to have acted initially as an auxiliary of the Ladies of Charity. They were unlike the religious orders of women at the time in that they were uncloistered. 

As he said in a letter to one of the priests of the mission shortly before he died: “I tell you, Father, that the Daughters of Charity are not religious (in the canonical sense), but women who come and go like lay people. They belong to the parish, and work under the direction of the pastors of these parishes to which they are appointed”. 

When Vincent de Paul was on his deathbed, a visitor asked him what he would do if he could start his life all over again. He replied, “I would do even more.” 

Although St. Vincent de Paul did not found our Society of St. Vincent de Paul, we do know that, besides the Ladies of Charity, he did form Confraternities of Charity for men as well as some mixed Confraternities. However, these did not survive, apparently because they did not manage their funds as effectively as the women’s confraternities did. 

What we can most learn from St. Vincent de Paul is his intense love of the poor and his understanding of the dignity of those we help. Shortly before he died, he gave this advice to a young Daughter of Charity, who was preparing to begin her life of service to the poor: “You must love the poor”, he said “and you must try to see that, through their affection for you, they will pardon you the bread you give them.” 

This, then, is the first portrait in our family gallery. It shows us a man whose life and spirituality we are called upon to imitate. His calling, like ours, was to a personal service of the poor, whatever their form of poverty. He left the palaces of his rich patrons to become the friend, and indeed the servant, of the poor. We can sum up his life as a struggle against indifference to the fate of the poor, in a country that was Catholic, at least in name; where love of country replaced love of God. 

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